Dolores Boudreau, a former Fairfield resident, had never heard of the street parade in Southport that leads to the Blessing of the Fleet every summer.
"I was here for something else," Boudreau, who now lives in Trumbull, said Saturday morning by Trinity Episcopal Church on Pequot Avenue, where the parade was set to begin, led by a Fairfield police motorcycle officer and the Governor's Horse Guard.
"I was parked in the parking lot and decided to stay for the parade because it looked so enchanting. It's a beautiful day, and I'm so glad I did," Boudreau said.
"I think it's charming. It's a real feel-good event. This is adorable," he added said as marching bands in historic costumes and antique cars headed east on Pequot Avenue. "I can't believe I lived here all my life and I didn't know this was going on."
Kathy Bennett of Fairfield, standing several feet away from Boudreau with her daughter, Maia, 9, said she attended the parade last year and that it was "a cute, fun little historic event."
"It's a fun thing to bring your kids to, and I like the history, the fact we don't let go of that history we have," Bennett said.
Boudreau and Bennett were among only a dozen people standing along Pequot Avenue when the parade started, but by the time the Governor's Horse Guard, five marching bands and town, state and federal dignitaries reached the corner of Harbor Road and Center Street, the parade had picked up several hundred residents who walked behind the line of march to Lower Wharf, a town-owned park at the end of Harbor Road, for the Blessing of the Fleet.
"It's a real good turnout," said Chris Jennings of Southport, who planned to tow two Ideal 18 sailboats behind a Boston Whaler so clergy on a dock at Lower Wharf could bless them as they passed by. Jennings said he's been to the parade four or five times and that it represents "just the spirit of community in Southport Village."
"With the bands going through, there's a sense of Americana," Jennings said.
By the time parade participants reached Lower Wharf, the half-acre park was packed with residents enjoying a cool breeze off Southport Harbor and hot dogs provided by the Southport Volunteer Fire Department. Several children and dogs played in the water off Lower Wharf as local, state and federal politicians made brief speeches extolling the virtues of community.
Terri Murray, business manager for the Moodus Drum & Fife Corps, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, said its members always make a point of being available for the annual Blessing of the Fleet and Street Parade in Southport.
"Most people try to put this on their calendar because they like it so much. We try to mark it on the calendar to make sure we're available," Murray said. "It's just a wonderful atmosphere ... It's a small, quaint, hometown feel, and it's always very well supported. You always have a lot of people on the street."
Paris Carbone, 7, said she liked the hot dogs, and her father, Anthony Carbone of Southport, said the parade was "just the right size." "It brings the community together. You see your neighbors that you haven't spoken to and other people that live in the area," he said.
David Becker, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1, which includes Southport, said Saturday's parade was "a true street parade" because onlookers often join the marchers as they pass by.
"This is where you see the ties within this community and the connections. It's a true grassroots street parade," Becker said, adding that the event has traditionally been blessed by good weather.
Tim Russell, the parade's emcee, said his father, Harris Russell, who started the parade about a dozen years ago, used to say he'd been all over the world but had never seen a place as beautiful as Southport. "And I think we can all agree with Harris," Tim said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, thanked the town of Fairfield "for reminding us what is important about America -- observing these basic values that bring us together."
"Washington could learn a lot from this picture. This picture is truly worth a thousand words," Blumenthal said. "There are parades that are bigger, longer and louder, but this is the nicest parade in the state of Connecticut."
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, agreed with Murray's sentiment, saying the annual Southport parade "was a highlight on all of our calendars."
"If Norman Rockwell didn't paint this, he should have," Himes said. "Coming together as a community, thinking back on our history, being with our families ... It's not just the fleet but we who are blessed today."
And First Selectman Michael Tetreau said the Southport parade is a tradition "that keeps Fairfield special" and that he looked forward to it every year.
State Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, had a proclamation for Steve Galpin of Southport, who helps to organize the parade every year, but Galpin was aboard a boat in Southport Harbor, waiting to pass by clergy from Southport Congregational Church, Trinity Church, St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Green's Farms Congregational Church in Westport.
McKinney recalled that Harris Russell, who died in 2003, not only started the annual street parade but was instrumental in getting Southport Harbor dredged at a time when the federal channel was in danger of closing due to sand blowing into the channel from the Country Club of Fairfield's beach.
"Harris, I know you're up there looking at us and proud of your family," McKinney said. "Thank you for all you have done."